Nothing fake about the joy robotic pets bring to CIUSSS long-term care residents

Sabrina Cabral, a Recreation Technician at the Donald Berman Jewish Eldercare Centre and Gordon Lyons, a resident, play with a robotic cat.
Sabrina Cabral, a Recreation Technician at the Donald Berman Jewish Eldercare Centre and Gordon Lyons, a resident, play with a robotic cat.

Recreation Technician Sabrina Cabral gently knocks on the door of resident Carroll Rosenberg’s room. She pokes her head in. Two walls are decorated with vibrant photos of dogs and cats. In one corner, Mr. Rosenberg is leant back in a chair with his eyes closed. He seems to have dozed off while watching TV, which continues to play in the background. 

“Carroll, I brought my cat, would you like to pet it?” Ms. Cabral says to him. She’s holding a fluffy, orange tabby cat. It purrs and meows like any cat would, but it’s actually a lifelike, battery-operated stuffed animal. 

It takes Mr. Rosenberg a moment to regain consciousness. As he opens his eyes, they lock onto the cat like magnets. He smiles wide, reaching his hand out to pet its nose. He lets out a shy laugh as the cat starts meowing.

Robotic pets like Ms. Cabral’s orange tabby are being used by recreation technicians across the CIUSSS as an intervention tool for residents. Through interacting with the animals, the aim is to  reduce feelings of anxiety, distress and loneliness, and stimulate communication.

“Right when we began using the cat, it was a success,” says Ms. Cabral, who works at the Donald Berman Jewish Eldercare Centre. “There’s this automatic response from the residents when they see it – they stop what they’re doing and are completely engaged.”

Wendy Foster and Amanda Mirarchi, Recreation Technicians at the St-Margaret Residential Centre, are using robotic pets to improve the well-being of residents.
Wendy Foster and Amanda Mirarchi, Recreation Technicians at the St-Margaret Residential Centre, are using robotic pets to improve the well-being of residents.

“They’re a conversation starter too,” adds Amanda Mirarchi, a Recreation Technician at Saint Margaret Residential Centre. “Residents often tell us stories about a pet they had, or what they’d like to name the animal.”

The robotic pets are stimulated by sound and touch. When an individual pets the cat, it will purr, and its body will lightly vibrate and start to roll over. The dog, in comparison, will whimper or happily bark, and wag its tail when spoken to or touched.

“The activity is non-threatening and easy-going,” says Wendy Foster, a Recreation Technician at Saint Margaret’s. “There isn’t much risk involved for any staff member to use them, compared to a live animal.”

However, it’s mandatory that the user’s hands are clean prior to touching the pets – staff always have wipes on hand as they do their rounds. They typically spend about 10 to 15 minutes with each resident.

In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the use of robotic pets was shown to decrease stress and anxiety in patients with dementia, leading to reductions in the use of psychoactive and pain medications. Since using the pets, staff have observed numerous positive effects, from anxious residents falling asleep with the animals on their laps, to agitated or aggressive residents smiling and laughing after an episode. But the benefits are seen in residents who are lucid, too.

“We have the higher-functioning residents who know the animal is fake, but they still want to engage with it,” says Ms. Cabral. “It’s the comfort that comes with holding it, it acts as a companion.”

Ms. Mirarchi recalls a resident who was extremely passive – he would not participate in recreation activities often, wasn’t a huge talker, never smiling.

“When we gave him the dog, the look in his eyes was a look of love,” she says. “He was so happy to hold the animal. He spent a good 40 minutes with it.”

Sabrina Cabral and Stana Cvitan, Recreation Technicians at the Donald Berman Jewish Eldercare Centre are using robotic pets as an intervention tool.
Sabrina Cabral and Stana Cvitan, Recreation Technicians at the Donald Berman Jewish Eldercare Centre are using robotic pets as an intervention tool.

“Sometimes it’s a question of reminding them of what brought them pleasure,” adds Ms. Foster. “It shows them there are still things to look forward to.”

The robotic pets were first introduced at the Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre. Staff hope to acquire more animals in the future, but it’s a matter of budget – each pet costs just under $200.

“I think what we’re trying to do is get people to see that there are other tools in the kit,” says Ms. Foster. “There are other ideas that can help this population.”

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